Down the years there have been exceptions to the rule, of course, but by and large the running of two bona fide number one drivers in a single team is a virtual guarantee of dissent No one ever put it better than Phil Hill: “People are always going to compare you with your team-mate, because he’s got the same equipment. Face it, it’s not a normal situation race drivers are in: you try to beat the other guys on the circuit all day, and then at night you’re supposed to forget all that. Not that easy…”
It certainly wasn’t that easy between Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, the Williams-Honda drivers in 1986 and ’87. Mansell, of course, was often prickly in his relationships with team mates, such as Elio de Angelis and Alain Prost, but never had any problems with his Williams partner immediately before Piquet, Keke Rosberg.
Status is the thing. Ego. When Mansell joined Williams, for the 1985 season, Rosberg had already been there for three years, a firmly established World Champion. Nigel had the sense to tread carefully, but came on ever stronger through the season, and ended it with a couple of victories. While sorry that Keke was leaving for McLaren, he was unconcerned by the signing of Piquet, for he now felt able to take on anyone in equal cars. Nelson, though, had joined Williams under the firm impression that he was to be team leader, and when, a couple of races into the season, Patrick Head began to work more with Mansell, he was not impressed. The relationship between the drivers went into steep decline, and by the time of the Detroit GP in June, Nigel was speaking freely of his distrust of Nelson. It was in the March of that year, immediately before the first race, that Frank Williams had the catastrophic road accident which would leave him paralysed, and FW’s lengthy spell in hospital meant, of course, that he was not around for his drivers to consult. As the summer moved on, Mansell established himself in the lead of the World Championship, and Piquet became ever more discontented.
By the time they got to Budapest, in August, Nigel had 51 points, Main Prost (McLaren-Porsche) 44, Ayrton Senna (Lotus-Renault) 42, and Nelson 38. Mansell had won four races, Piquet two. As far as the Hungaroring was concerned, no one knew what to expect. This was Formula One’s first venture behind what was then the Iron Curtain, and there had been no testing at the circuit. “Bit basic, isn’t it?” muttered Nigel on the opening day of practice, and he was talking more about the country than about the track. Back in 1986, Hungary was indeed basic.
My first inkling of this had come the day before, when we were about 30 miles from Budapest, en route from Vienna. Having been delayed at the border, we put in at a service area to call the hotel, let them know we would be a little late.
“No,” said the lady at the tourist bureau firmly, “you can’t telephone Budapest from here. Impossible.”
An Austrian colleague tried to further our negotiations. “No good,” he said. “Her telephone operates only in a 151cm radius of here,” he replied. In my innocence, I asked why.
“To prevent communication,” he said, simply. “You are in an Eastern bloc country now, remember…” Communication was to be a problem in the Williams motorhome that weekend, too.
Architecturally, Budapest was — and is — stunning. These days, with a McDonald’s every 30 feet, you could be in any major city on earth. Back then, though, the shops conjured images of England in 1947, and the restaurants suggested food of a similar vintage. The wine, by way of doleful contrast, appeared to have been pressed only the day before. That said, the people were kindly and polite, and their enthusiasm for this new world of Grand Prix racing was rather touching. In the paddock they hovered close to the drivers, but were careful not to interrupt conversations. Finally, when they thought the moment right, they approached for autographs with carefully rehearsed English, addressing ‘Mr Warwick’, and calling Rosberg, ‘Sir’. Monza it most definitely was not.
If they appreciated the courtesy and warmth with which they were• treated, however, the drivers were left cold by the Hungaroring, and that much has never changed. ‘Mickey Mouse’ even by the standards of today, 14 years ago it seemed a complete absurdity. In those days of the turbo era, when the cars qualified with upwards of 1200bhp and raced with 1000, still only a handful of drivers succeeded in lapping the place at over 100mph.
There were no straights worth the name, and an abundance of fatuously tight corners. As well as that, the track surface was ‘industrial’, which is to say that probably it would require little or no attention for 40 or 50 years, but provided no grip whatever.
Actually, this made for quite entertaining spectating, for the cars of the time had anyway a surfeit of power over grip, and Piquet and Senna, in particular, routinely proceeded through the first corner in gloriously abandoned opposite-lock slides. Ayrton took pole position eventually, with Nelson next to him, then Prost, Mansell and Rosberg. On race day 189,000 paid to come in, even though for most the price of basic admission was close to a week’s wages; this was, after all, the first major international sporting event in Hungary for 30 years. By nine o’clock, with the heat already building, they packed the hillsides.
In the warm-up, the McLarens of Prost and Rosberg set the best times, but afterwards Piquet — always a sandbagger sans pareil — confided to an Italian journalist friend that he had ‘found something’ in qualifying, that winning the race would be no problem. With two cars at his disposal, he had tried a different cliff, and found it markedly superior on this track where grip was scarce, but although he let on about it to his pal, he forgot to mention it to his team-mate.
Although Senna fought characteristically hard in the race, and led for much of it, the Lotus was not truly a match for Piquet’s Williams, which won by 18 seconds, with Mansell a distant — and disconsolate — third.
The post-race press conference was one of those tense affairs, with Piquet smiling brightly, and Mansell seething at his side. In public, at least, Nigel refrained from getting into a slanging match, but later, in the paddock, his displeasure was obvious.
“When Piquet passed me,” he muttered, “I could see how his car was working — how my car could have been working…” As he strode back to the motorhome, face set, he was unwilling to elaborate: “Just let’s say there was a problem with my car, which there needn’t have been. I’m going to talk to Frank about it now.” A little while later the intrepid approached the Williams area in search of further enlightenment; the buzz of Formula Easter cars out on the track was no match for the frank exchange of views from within the motorhome.
Four days later, we reconvened in the paddock at the Osterreichring — where the lap speed was very nearly 50mph higher than at the Hungaroring — and it was clear there had been no rapprochement between the two Williams drivers. Mansell continued to stress that he, unlike Piquet, was a team player, while Nelson maintained an innocent, wide-eyed, expression, and said he couldn’t understand why Nigel, too, hadn’t tried the alternative duff.
“Because I didn’t have a bloody T-car, that’s why!” Mansell snapped. Not for the first time Patrick Head gazed up at the sky, and thought uncharitable thoughts about racing drivers. Ye Gods, give me strength.
What worried Patrick most was that Nigel and Nelson would take points away from each other in the remaining races, that in the end neither would take the World Championship. He was on the mark: Piquet beat Mansell at Monza, and at Estoril it was the other way round, but in Australia the race — and the title — went to Prost. “We had a lot more power than McLaren,” Head said, “and we really shouldn’t have lost the championship that year. Looking back, Nelson and Nigel were more preoccupied with beating each other than beating Alain; their relationship never really recovered after Hungary…”